JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - Every day, women and men lay their lives on the line to serve our country.
When that time is over, it’s sometimes difficult to maneuver the myriad amounts of paperwork required to receive health care, disability and other such services for our veterans.
But, our next winner in the Gr8 Acts of Kindness is legendary when it comes to navigating the sea of paperwork required while showing unparalleled compassion.
Vermalene Smith goes just about everywhere in search of answers for veterans in Craighead County.
“This has been a reward for me as anything I have ever given, because it has fulfilled my life,” Vermalene Smith, Craighead County Veterans Service Officer said. “It has given me a mission.”
That mission has spanned 12 years and thousands of hours searching for answers and hundreds more organizing events like this one to educate veterans about services available to them.
“She doesn’t give up,” Ed Watson, Vietnam veteran 1967-1968 said. “When the VA turns somebody down, it’s not over for her. That just basically means that we’ve got more paperwork to do basically.”
“I owe also to her because I was able to get more than 30% disabled and go through vocational rehab,” Glen Douglass, retired U.S. Air Force member said. “Vocational rehabilitation for veterans and finished a Master’s degree."
She is boots on the ground—going anywhere and everywhere to take care of those who have served their country.
When a veteran died without any family and no money to bury him, Vermalene would not give up her search to find something—anything to help bring him dignity in death.
“I found that there was a federal program that would bury our veterans that would allow $2,600 as long as they were in a veterans cemetery,” Vermalene said.
That burial at the Arkansas State Veteran’s cemetery in Birdeye was attended by hundreds—thanks to Vermalene.
“We had a 150 veterans on motorcycles to give that veteran,” Vermalene said. “He was a Vietnam veteran. He was 78 years old. But, he had the proper burial and everything he needed that day.”
So, on this day, we are gathered at the Craighead County Courthouse where Vermalene Smith has her office.
A delegation of county representatives, friends and veterans are waiting just outside her door.
“Surprise!,” we all yell as Vermalene opens her door and walks out wide-eyed with amazement.
“This is unbelievable,” she said.
"Your candle has burned at both ends helping all the veterans here in Craighead County. I know that I heard that you’ve stayed here late at night, early in the morning and on weekends,” I tell her. “And as a testament to all that you do, look at all of these folks who are here for you today.”
The room erupts with applause.
“It has been my privilege and honor to have been able to work for our veterans and to come to know our veterans in this community because Jonesboro and Craighead County is the most supportive place I’ve seen,” she said with her voice shaking, overcome with emotion. “There has always been someone willing to help and that’s what’s made this job so wonderful. I’m the privileged blessed person here.”
“Well, your caring heart is the reason why you are the next winner in the Gr8 Acts of Kindness,” I tell Vermalene.
An envelope from First Community Bank is opened to reveal $408 in cash.
Everyone in the room joins in counting the cash out loud as I put the bills into her hand.
“Thank you for your caring spirit taking care of those who have served our country,” Allen Williams, Community President of First Community Bank said.
“Congratulations!” We are so happy for you,” a woman from the crowd reaches over to hug Vermalene’s neck.
“Well deserved!” Jim Fulkerson said. “If every county had an officer like you, they would be a lot better off!”
From creating a closet of clothing for veterans going on a job interview or needing to go to a funeral.
“We loan our suits,” Vermalene tells me as she stands in the closet just feet away from her office. “We take care of them. We send them to the dry cleaners.”
To handing out packets of food and necessities to veterans who, for one reason or another, find themselves on the street.
“We can place our veteran in a motel at night,” Vermalene explained. “We have motels that work with us.”
Even when a veteran can seem hard to reach because of drug use.
“There is good in every person. Sometimes it just takes us longer to find it,” Vermalene said. “But when they find people that will believe in them—regardless of what they come in looking like that day.”
Vermalene gives and gives and gives… even as she sacrifices herself.
“She has been diagnosed with a rare blood cancer,” Glenn Faurie, U.S. Air Force veteran, 1972-1976, said. “She was diagnosed at the end of last August. Instead of going down to M.D. Anderson in Houston to get treatment right away, she stayed and helped the veterans for a year.”
"I guess that I’ve been in denial,” Vermalene said with tears in her eyes. “I thought that I could overcome it and I have overcome a lot. But, also being 80 years old, it’s time to move on.”
Vermalene will leave the job she loves September 1 to begin retirement.
“All good things must come to an end,” Vermalene said.
“She’s a fighter,” Watson said.
“That’s why I will miss her tremendously,” Faurie said.
“She’s going to be missed a lot,” Douglass said.
Vermalene made the decision the very day she received her Gr8 Acts of Kindness winnings to donate it to the Northeast Arkansas Veterans Action Clergy.
The organization provides support for the mental, spiritual, and social needs of returning service members and their families.